© Nick Taylor

Armando Iannucci: Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s “Failures of State” brought me to tears—of rage

Their jaw-dropping account of the early management of the pandemic had me physically shaking”
November 4, 2021

What is the first news event you can recall?
Moon landings! Aged six or seven in Kirkintilloch, a small town outside Glasgow, I took the bus to school. (Six- and seven-year-olds did that on their own in those happy times.) The stop was outside a TV shop, something like Rumbelows that no longer exists, and I could watch, without sound, people on the moon while waiting for the bus. 

If you could spend a day in one place at one moment in history, where and when would that be?
I’ve become obsessed with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but I’m not sure I’d want to be there. Maybe I could watch it from a hot air balloon, but it would be pretty grim viewing; sackings of cities in those days were never pleasant. 

What is your favourite quotation?
Having studied Paradise Lost for ages and then writing Pandemonium, which is inspired by Milton’s depiction of hell, the quotation that sticks with me is: “Evil, be thou my good.” It’s Satan trying to persuade everyone to be happy with their lot in hell. It’s a frantic play on language that kind of sums up today’s flood of false news and fake facts. 

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?
Before he came to the UK, my father fought with the Italian Partisans against Mussolini and the fascists when he was 16 or 17. He died when I was in my teens and my mum, who was a hairdresser, brought four of us kids up on her own. Both my parents, in their different ways, showed true commitment and sacrifice. 

What is the most striking improvisation you’ve seen on set?
In the first episode of The Thick of It, Peter Capaldi improvised an entire monologue, perfectly summing up the state of UK politics at the time and its obsession with media messaging. I don’t think it’s been bettered.

What have you changed your mind about?
Brexit! Actually, I haven’t changed my mind: it’s a disaster; don’t get me started—but I do now think the country’s too divided for us to be openly talking about rejoining soon. I’m not sure those of us who voted to remain should be standing on the sidelines gleefully pointing out how awful it is. We should be engaging with how the country runs itself so we can make as good a job of it as we can. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?
People, especially on set, think I’m calm and confident, but only because I’ve grown used to suppressing my extreme anxiety and imposter syndrome with nervous gags.

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?
If it was tears it was tears of rage when I read Failures of State, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s jaw-dropping account of the last 18 months of pandemic mismanagement. Chapters on the early decision to leave the elderly or otherwise vulnerable in their homes to die—to free beds for more “useful” patients—actually had me physically shaking. 

What do you most regret?
That I took academic life too seriously as a student—I should have taken some time off. I was at Glasgow University when I was 16 and Oxford when I was 17 and I should really have gone to more parties!  

Armando Iannucci’s “Pandemonium: Some Verses on the Current Predicament” is out from Little, Brown